Irish take momentum onto recruiting trail

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After an undefeated November, the Irish coaching staff hit the recruiting trail, and it isn’t hard to see the difference between spending the season’s final month building momentum versus the tailspin of the last two years. The commitments of Cam McDaniel and Everett Golson this week help illustrate how important stability at the top of a football program — and more importantly, winning football games — helps down the stretch in closing a recruiting class.

While Rich Rodriguez is fighting for his job and playing Josh Groban songs, Brian Kelly and his staff are canvasing the country, as the coaching staff have a recruiting class to finalize and a young roster to build upon.

(For those of you that think all 7-5 records are equal, the Michigan and Notre Dame situations show that to be quite untrue.)

While it’ll hardly be as comprehensive as some of the premium websites, here’s a look at where the coaches have been, who they might be targeting, and what’s left to accomplish.

THE COMMITMENTS:

Notre Dame currently has 18 verbal commitments for the 2011 recruiting class:

Josh Atkinson — DB
George Atkinson — WR
Kyle Brindza — K
Jalen Brown — DB
Brad Carrico — DE
Ben Councell — DE
Davaris Daniels — WR
Matthias Farley — DB/WR
Everett Golson — QB
Jarett Grace — LB
Conor Hanratty — OL
Eilar Hardy — DB
Matthew Hegarty — OL
Ben Koyack — TE
Cam McDaniel — RB
Anthony Rabasa — DE
Tony Springmann — DE
Stephon Tuitt — DE

As we’ve seen in the past with “commitments,” these are in no way binding, and Kelly and his staff have been out visiting all of their commitments this month as they come down the home stretch of the recruiting cycle.

Losing both Aaron Lynch and Clay Burton at defensive end certainly hurts the Irish, but they’ve done a very good job filling some holes on the depth chart there in this current class. The Irish’s lack of depth at safety was a huge issue this year as well, but all four safeties in the two-deep return and the Irish have a few guys that profile for the position and a few offers outstanding as well.

THE TARGETS

Pete Sampson of IrishIllustrated.com reports that Brian Kelly spent much of the day yesterday visiting touted Iowa recruit Christian French and his family, offering the athlete the ability to come into Notre Dame as an offensive player and not an outside linebacker like many project French to be.

In addition to long-standing targets like French, the Irish continue to pursue New York’s Ishaq Williams, and recently had defensive coordinator Bob Diaco visit in advance of Williams’s official visit to campus next week. The Irish have a legitimate chance of landing Williams, something many thought was a long shot when the recruitment began.

The Irish are also still targeting running back Savon Huggins, who welcomed Diaco and running backs coach Tim Hinton into his home. Huggins has other official visits set up, but the Irish are a favorite here, and Huggins would be a great addition to a running back depth chart that loses two of its top performers in Armando Allen and Robert Hughes.

Tight ends coach Mike Denbrock swung by Anaheim to visit with defensive end target Troy Niklas, who has the Irish among his top three schools, with USC and Stanford also in the mix. Niklas is a 6-foot-7 athlete that also has a chance to be a tight end, but fits the developmental mode for a 3-4 defensive end in the Irish system. Servite high school and Orange county are traditional Trojan territories, but USC’s struggles and Stanford’s annual Jim Harbaugh departure questions give the Irish a shot at adding more depth along the edges of the defense.

Denbrock also headed to the Pacific Northwest to visit Oregon’s Brennan Scarlett, a top defensive end/outside linebacker prospect that compares favorably to current Irish defensive end (and Oregon native) Ethan Johnson. Scarlett has a national offer list, but he was in South Bend for the victory over Utah and adds another intriguing athlete and high-character kid to the fray.

WILDCARDS

One thing that seems different from the Kelly regime to the previous coaching staff under Charlie Weis is that the Irish seem to be in less “high-leverage” positions. Too often, the Irish put their eggs in the baskets of high profile athletes that changed their mind, leaving Notre Dame scrambling for other options. No doubt, defections hurt any recruiting class, but under Kelly and recruiting coordinator Chuck Martin, the Irish seem to have left themselves with plenty of options as signing day arrives, and now it’s a matter of filling up the remaining seats on the bus as more than enough passengers standing by, swinging the supply and demand power in the Irish’s favor.

The recruitment of Golson and McDaniel this week show just how nimble this recruiting staff is, and the addition of an early-entry national quarterback recruit like Golson this late in the game is pretty unparalleled for Notre Dame. Likewise, the Irish have a chance to add a few more wildcards to the fold before players ink their letters of intent.

Kansas native Shane Ray is a new target on the Irish board that has a lot of similarities to another outside linebacker that’s from the same area. It wasn’t long ago that Brian Smith walked away from a commitment to Missouri to come to Notre Dame, and Ray, who is coached by former Irish lineman Tim Grunhard and also committed to Mizzou, will be visiting South Bend this weekend.

When Randy Shannon was fired at Miami, the Irish dispatched Tony Alford to check on one-time target Anthony Chickillo, a high-motor defensive end whose father and grandfather played football for the Hurricanes. It’s likely that whatever coach is hired at Miami will have every shot to get Chickillo back in the fold, but with Alford on the scene, who knows what could happen.

With the Irish coaching staff’s connections to Ohio, don’t count them out on their pursuit of Doran Grant, a Buckeye target from Akron. Having just offered his teammate Cam McDaniel, Bennett Okotcha, currently a Wisconsin commit, could consider the Irish as well. Guys like Miles Shuler and the Stanford commit Amir Carlisle also stay in touch with the Irish, making the next few months an exciting time to follow the craziness that is college recruiting.

 

 

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Early NFL departures hit Georgia, Michigan and Stanford hardest

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A sign of a strong program is one that loses players to the NFL before they exhaust eligibility. In that vein, Notre Dame lost a consensus first-team All-American cornerback, its leading receiver and a long-time tease of a tight end. The last of those (Alizé Mack) was never expected back for a fifth season; replacing Miles Boykin’s production is certainly within reason; and a consensus first-team All-American should be expected to take the route junior Julian Love has.

Even with that expectation, losing Love — and to a lesser extent, Boykin — alters the natural roster cycle, the inherent design intended during recruiting. Reloading is always the hope, the next intention, but very rarely is the young backup comparable to the near professional, even by the end of the coming season.

Nonetheless, the Irish got off easy this cycle compared to four of their 2019 opponents …

GEORGIA: Junior running back Elijah Holyfield, the Bulldogs’ second-leading rusher, departs after gaining 1,018 rushing yards with seven touchdowns on 6.4 yards per carry this season. Frankly, that is the least of Georgia’s losses. Three of quarterback Jake Fromm’s four favorite targets will leave eligibility on the figurative table:

— Junior receiver Riley Ridley: 44 catches for 570 yards and nine touchdowns in 2018.
— Junior receiver Mecole Hardman: 34 catches for 532 yards and seven touchdowns.
— Junior tight end Isaac Nauta: 30 catches for 430 yards and three touchdowns.

Without running back Karan Higdon, Michigan will presumably rely on its passing game more in 2019, quarterback Shea Patterson’s second season as a Wolverine. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

MICHIGAN: The Wolverines got good news when quarterback Shea Patterson opted to return for 2019, but losing leading-rusher Karan Higdon (1,178 yards, 10 touchdowns, 5.3 average) will be an issue head coach Jim Harbaugh undoubtedly hoped to avoid. Junior tight end Zach Gentry, Patterson’s third-most prolific target with 32 catches for 514 yards and two scores, will also head to the next level.

On the flip side, Harbaugh could have hoped linebacker Devin Bush (team-leading 80 tackles with 9.5 for loss including five sacks), defensive end Rashan Gary (44 tackles with seven for loss including 3.5 sacks) or linebacker David Long (17 tackles with one interception) might return, but no such luck for Michigan.

Duke junior quarterback Daniel Jones will head to the NFL after his third season as a starter, immediately lowering the Blue Devils’ 2019 expectations. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

DUKE: Junior linebacker Joe Giles-Harris paced the Blue Devils with 81 tackles, including seven for loss with one sack, doing so in only nine games. But losing Giles-Harris is hardly the concern for Duke. The decision to turn pro from quarterback Daniel Jones is.

In his third year as a starter, the junior fought through a broken collarbone to still play in 11 games in 2018, completing 60.5 percent of his passes for 2,674 yards and 22 touchdowns with nine interceptions. He added 319 rushing yards and three touchdowns.

Jones’ decision may come as a surprise, but it is one that should work out well for both him and Notre Dame. Some mock drafts project him as a top-10 pick. In a draft light on quarterbacks — partly because Oregon’s Justin Herbert returned for another season, yet already somewhat counteracted by the Monday draft entry from Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray — Jones could end up being the third or fourth passer picked.

BOSTON COLLEGE: The Eagles will say farewell to junior cornerback Hemp Cheevers after he notched seven interceptions this season, returning one for a touchdown, to go along with 39 tackles.

STANFORD: This will seem like the Cardinal lost a lot to the NFL draft, but it could have been worse: As the departures mounted, so did speculation junior quarterback K.J. Costello might follow them. He opted not to.

Stanford will be without running back Bryce Love after his prodigious two seasons as the starter. Consider that a loss akin to the Irish Love, the inevitable price of enjoying the success in the first place.

Junior receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside will capitalize on his breakout season of 1,059 yards and 14 touchdowns, depriving Costello of his favorite jump-ball threat.

Junior tight end Kaden Smith will also head to the next level, in large part thanks to his 47 catches for 635 yards and two touchdowns this past season.

Louisville, New Mexico, Virginia, Bowling Green, USC, Virginia Tech and Navy all did not lose anyone early or pseudo-early to the NFL draft.

Autry Denson leaves Notre Dame to take over at Charleston Southern

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Notre Dame’s all-time leading rusher will no longer coach its current running backs. After four seasons at his alma mater, Autry Denson has been named the head coach at Charleston Southern, an FCS-level program, per a release Monday afternoon.

The second-longest tenured coach on Brian Kelly’s staff (behind only defensive line coach Mike Elston; tied with cornerbacks coach Todd Lyght), Denson had produced quality Irish backs, peaking with Josh Adams’ 1,430 rushing yards in 2017, leading an offense that averaged 269.5 rushing yards per game.

“I am so excited for Autry as he embarks on the next step of his coaching career as the new head coach at Charleston Southern,” Kelly said in a statement. “He has done a tremendous job for us during his time at Notre Dame.

“He not only developed our running backs to produce at a high level on the field, but he was also instrumental in their growth as young men.”

Only Adams and C.J. Prosise broke 1,000 rushing yards in a season under Denson, though Dexter Williams gained 995 in only nine games this past season. A third-round pick in 2016, Prosise has spent his entire career with the Seattle Seahawks, while Adams rushed for 511 yards and three touchdowns in his rookie season with the Philadelphia Eagles. Williams should join them in the NFL in April’s draft.

All of them paled in comparison to Denson’s college days, a career that saw him gain 4,318 rushing yards, 43 touchdowns and three seasons of more than 1,000 rushing yards. A 1998 All-American, Denson then spent five years in the NFL.

Denson began his coaching career at the FCS level at Bethune-Cookman in Daytona Beach, Fla., a couple hundred miles up the coast from his hometown outside of Miami.

“I was drawn to Charleston Southern by the vision of this great Christian university of integrating faith in learning, leading and serving,” Denson said. “As a result, I knew this could be a place where I could build and lead a program to honor Christ by operating with character, integrity, transparency, accountability and community.”

Charleston Southern went 5-6 in 2018 under Mark Tucker, who went 11-11 in two seasons before resigning last month.

Program-record 10 early enrollees mark the beginning of Notre Dame’s 2019

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With the early enrollment of 10 freshmen, Notre Dame’s 2019 has begun. Usually this sparks a debate among outsiders pitting the advantages of early enrollment against the high school experiences lost. Not only is that an argument held by those far from both the program and high school, but it is also one missing the team-wide edge gained.

With 10 additional scholarship bodies this spring, the Irish will have 77 on hand, as of now. A total of 16 of those will be offensive linemen, including four mid-year arrivals. Whereas there are some springs in which Notre Dame struggles to field a second unit on its offensive line, this March and April will feature three complete units with a body to spare.

There will be just as many defensive lines, with three early enrollees bringing the total up to 14 scholarship players knocking around this spring, though the health of rising sophomore Ja’Mion Franklin (quad) may drop that a notch.

Either way, the Irish will have more depth on hand this spring than usual. The 10 freshmen spurning a semester of high school will still have their chance at added weight room time, meaningful spring repetitions and theoretical development, but those rewards can end up as much hypothetical as realized. It is nearly impossible to predict if running back Kyren Williams (pictured above) will be tangibly more developed in September because he got to South Bend in January. Linebacker Jack Kiser is unlikely to play much as a freshman in either scenario; punter Jay Bramblett is certainly going to no matter what. However, the opportunity to have thorough practices with up-front depth should only enhance the effects of this spring.

None of this will ever become exactly normal, even if Notre Dame has increased its early enrollee numbers from beginning in 2006 to seven last season and now these 10. Of this grouping, some are the first to make this exact leap in their high school’s history. Many private schools do not make such possible. For that matter, this influx speaks to this group in particular, not an overall trend.

It is, nonetheless, a group receiving many of the same praises Irish head coach Brian Kelly has offered in years past and will undoubtedly offer as long as he remains in this post.

“These guys are serious about what they are doing,” Kelly said in December’s early signing period. “They are signing up for getting a degree and winning a national championship. These are not silly guys. These are guys that are really focused on coming here to win a national championship.”

Of course, that is always Kelly’s stated goal. The national championship game may be 364 days from now, but that process has already begun anew.

The 10 early enrollees:
Offensive tackles Quinn Carroll and Andrew Kristofic
Offensive guard John Olmstead
Center Zeke Correll
Running back Kyren Williams
Defensive tackles Jacob Lacey and Hunter Spears
Defensive end NaNa Osafo-Mensah
Linebacker Jack Kiser
Punter Jay Bramblett

Claypool’s return welcome news for Notre Dame

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Notre Dame will need to replace only one receiver next season. Chase Claypool announced he will return for his senior season Thursday evening. This may have been long presumed, but less qualified players have entered the NFL draft with eligibility remaining in years past.

With the departure of Miles Boykin, Claypool will become the leading Irish target, the prime candidate to replace Boykin’s 59 catches for 872 yards and eight touchdowns. A year ago, asking Claypool to put up numbers like that would have been a leap beyond reason, but after a 2018 season in which he accounted for 50 catches, 639 yards and four touchdowns, Claypool becoming an offense’s best playmaker is fathomable beyond just pinning those hopes on the Canadian native’s athleticism.

Claypool’s career began as a special teams star, making 11 tackles in 2016, while catching only five passes for 81 yards. An inconsistent sophomore season followed, managing 29 catches for 402 yards and two touchdowns. Those may sound like solid numbers, but they include only five catches in the season’s final four games and only one game with more than four catches all season.

Claypool had at least four catches in seven games this season, all started by junior quarterback Ian Book. With Book throwing, Claypool averaged 4.67 catches and 58.56 yards per game, highlighted by eight for 130 at Northwestern.

Claypool and current senior Chris Finke will presumably both start again, while one of a number of rising sophomores could step in either for Boykin on the boundary or for Claypool on the field side with Claypool possibly taking over boundary duties.

With five catches for 90 yards in his freshman campaign and a skill set similar to Boykin’s, Kevin Austin may be the front-runner for that starting role.